jules verne, “the green ray”

Jules Verne
The Green Ray
(trans. Mary de Hauteville )
(Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, & Rivington, 1883)


I found Jules Verne’s The Green Ray, as I suspect most of this book’s readers are now found, through Rohmer’s film of the same name. It’s been a long time since I read Verne, if I ever did – possibly the editions of Voyage to the Center of the Earth and so on that I remember reading as a child weren’t actually his work at all. The Green Ray seems to have been mostly forgotten, though there’s no shortage of cheap new editions on Amazon. Google has a copy of an 1883 edition: it’s a short book & not hard to read on a screen.

The first few paragraphs of Chapter I, “The Brothers Sam and Sib,” promisingly seem to prefigure the Hardy Boys:

“Betty!”
“Bess!”
“Betsey!”
One after another these names re-echoed through the hall of Helensburgh; it was the way the brothers Sam and Sib had of summoning their housekeeper.”

“Sib” isn’t quite right as a name, of course: it feels a little too meta, though we soon learn that it’s actually short for “Sebastian”. And the single-sentence paragraph after next sends the reader rushing to the dictionary, suspecting all is not right with Google’s scan: “It was Partridge the factor, who with his hat in his hand, made his appearance at the hall-door.” A factor is, exactly as you might expect, a “doer or agent”, as the OED‘s first definition has it.

Sam and Sib Melville, “Scotchmen of the old school,” are uncles of the eighteen-year-old orphan Helena Campbell, as much the Thompson and Thomson of Tintin as the Hardy Boys:

For her sake they remained celibates, being of that number of estimable persons whose earthly career is one long course of self-denial. And does it not say much for them when the elder brother constituted himself father, and the younger one mother to the child, so that it came quite naturally to Helena to address them with,—
“Good morning, Papa Sam. How are you, Mamma Sib?”

Sam & Sib are trying to marry off Helena, hopefully to someone with the fine name of “Mr. Aristobulus Ursiclos”; with a name like that he is cursed to be a popinjay. But Helena refuses to be married until she has seen the green ray. In Verne’s Scotland, the green ray “has the virtue of making him who has seen it impossible to be deceived in matters of sentiment; at its apparition all deceit and falsehood are done away, and he who has been fortunate enough once to behold it is enabled to see closely into his own heart and read the thoughts of others” (p.33). (This is, more or less, the precis of the book delivered in Rohmer’s film.)

There’s a lack of suspense in this book: really, most of the time is spent maneuvering the characters into such a place where they can see an unobstructed sunset over water, which turns into a general tour of the western coast of Scotland while they try to find a view that is not blocked by other islands, or sailboats, or clouds. There’s a croquet party, which has been fixed to let Sam & Sib win; nonetheless, it drags on and on, eventually providing the pretext for meeting Oliver Sinclair, painter and naval hero, who is clearly a more suitable match than Aristobulus. Helena and Oliver have conversations like this:

“Ah! Mr. Sinclair, I am like you, passionately fond of our archipelago! it is magnificent, especially when lashed by the fury of tempests.”
“It is indeed sublime,” replied Oliver Sinclair. “There is nothing on the way to obstruct the violence of the gales which vent their force here after travelling three thousand miles! The American coast faces Scotland, and though great storms may rise there, it is the western coast of Europe which gets the first benefit of their fury! But what can they do against our Hebrides, which are not like that man of whom Livingstone speaks, who had no fear of lions, but was afraid of the sea? These isles, with their solid granite bases, can laugh to scorn the violence of wind and sea.”
“The sea! A chemical combination of hydrogen and oxygen with two and a half per cent. of chloride of sodium! Indeed, nothing can be more sublime than the violent agitations of chloride of sodium!” (p. 180)

There’s a lot of excitement in this book. It can be hard to tell how to read this: the last speech there is an interjection by the scientifically-minded Aristobulus, who is determined to put an end to Oliver and Helena’s fledgling romance, and possibly is intended to be funny, but it seems of a piece with the previous exclamations on the beauty of everything. When they reach Iona, Aristobulus becomes an iconoclast in the name of geology:

“I am by no means an iconoclast,” he tells the disapproving Helena, “but a geologist, and as such I am anxious to know the nature of this stone.”) Science frequently gets in the way of the sublime. It’s unclear quite why Aristobulus should be so villainous; there’s a profit motive, as Sam and Sib have a fortune that will be passed on, but Aristobulus betrays no interest in this. He is quite simply an enemy of the good, denying, for example, that eyes can smile (no Facial Action Coding System for him), that ghosts and fairies might exist, or the charms of Ossian “whose genius united poetry and music” and who is quoted with loving repetition. “Mr. Ursiclos will spoil my Green Ray with his explanation,” complains Helena. The narrator, however, is more than happy to insert digressions into the geology of caves around the world: a time and a place for everything, perhaps.

A climax is concocted: Oliver saves Helena from tidal misadventure in Fingal’s Cave. One is impressed with how well the illustration of the cave accords with the photographs in Wikipedia from the same perspective:

Helena swoons; she is rescued. The scene is set for the finale: Aristobulus has been left on Iona, Helena and Oliver are in love. Oliver, now a hero, is fine with Sam and Sib. They might finally see the green ray if Helena has recovered from her ordeal. Nothing blocks the view; and finally, the green ray is seen by the brothers and the servants. Helena and Oliver are too busy looking into each other’s eyes to notice.

*     *     *     *     *

Verne’s The Green Ray isn’t particularly good: one can see that it would have once had value as a travelogue of Scotland, but as fiction it is sorely disappointing. It’s interesting, then, that it can be used to such good effect in Rohmer’s Le rayon vert: perhaps because it’s the idea of the book, rather than the book itself, which comes into play. Delphine, the heroine, has almost certainly not read The Green Ray when she hears people talking about it. (This clip, with Spanish subtitles, is the book’s complete appearance in the film.) The old people discussing the book admit they thought it boring; but now they find it fascinating as a story of love, the idea of trying to find something almost impossible to actually see. Then an old man, the incarnation of Aristobulus Ursiclos, explains to everyone exactly what the green ray is. (Should you like your Green Ray spoiled with explanation, see Wikipedia, which insists that the phenomenon should be called a “green flash” rather than a “green ray.”)

The idea of The Green Ray is more interesting than the book itself; and when Delphine finally ends her slump by allowing a man to approach her, he does so ostensibly because of what she’s reading, Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, which she seems to have nearly finished. Later, she is reminded again of the green ray by a shop with that name; she tells the man what she’s heard about the book, asking him if he’s read it – he hasn’t – but not revealing whether or not she’s read it, though she gives the impression of that. Rohmer rather miraculously manages to capture the green ray on film: perhaps it’s appropriate that it doesn’t show through the graininess of a YouTube clip of the movie’s ending:

éric rohmer, “six moral tales”

Éric Rohmer
Six Moral Tales
(trans. Sabine d’Estrée)
(Viking Press, 2009)


Amazon had the Criterion Six Moral Tales box set for cheap after Éric Rohmer died; I took them up on it, and I’ve been working my way through them. The box set includes six DVDs; in addition to a booklet of critical essays, Rohmer’s book of short stories made from the films is also included. It’s a substantial book (262 pages); off the top of my head, I can’t think of other editions of films that have privileged a text counterpart so much. Criterion’s edition of Last Year at Marienbad, for example, doesn’t include the out-of-print Grove edition of the book, illustrated with the film stills. Nor are there that many films that are so directly connected to literary fiction authored by the director: Antonioni’s That Bowling Alley on the Tiber comes to mind, but there’s a difference between the short stories in that and the films. There’s Marguerite Duras, of course, and Georges Perec, but the films they directed aren’t especially well-known; the exception might be Duras’s India Song.

I’ve been reading the stories after watching all the films, so it’s taken me a while to make my way through this. Reviews of the Six Moral Tales often say that they’re based on a novel; the back cover of this edition says that “years before Eric Rohmer turned to filmmaking, he wrote his famed Six Moral Tales in book form,” which echoes Rohmer’s statement in his preface that the stories “are not adapted from my films.” These assertions are misleading; Rohmer’s is disingenuous. This isn’t a novel; rather, it’s six short stories where the same basic plot (boy has girl; boy meets other girl; boy considers straying) is reenacted, almost in the manner of Queneau’s Exercises in Style. The French copyright date on this is 1974, two years after the last of the films; in addition, it seems clear that these stories were (at the very least) reworked after the making of the films, something more noticeable because the stories and the films are extremely similar.

At the start of the film of La Collectionneause, for example, is a scene where a painter, played by Daniel Pommereulle, talks to an art critic, played by Alain Jouffroy. Jouffroy disappears from the film after this scene; the painter, who is the third-most important character in the film, is identified by others as “Daniel”. The viewer may not know that Jouffroy is best known as an art critic, and that Pommereulle is generally known as an artist. This situation is further confused by the same scene’s treatment in the text:

Daniel – Daniel Pommereulle, to give his full name – is one of those contemporary painters who durin the sixties tossed their paintbrushes into the garbage and turned their creative energies to the manufacture of “objects.” The art critic Alain Jouffroy called them “Objectors,” and in the art magazine Quadrum published an article under this title devoted to their work. The year is 1966, and Jouffroy is paying a visit to Daniel’s studio. (p. 129.)

The article mentioned actually exists – “Les Objecteurs: La ‘Distance infinie’ de Duchamp,” Quadrum, no. 19, 1965, pp. 6–9. La Collectionneuse was released in 1967; possibly the scene was shot in 1966. One wonders, however, whether the conversation between Jouffroy and Pommereulle that follows is theirs or Rohmer’s. The acting credits in the film begin “avec la collaboration pour l’interprétation et les dialogues de”; what’s said in the film is very close to the text, but inexact. Although it’s isolated, almost certainly their scene in the film isn’t documentary: there’s too much relevance to what happens later. The first paragraph of the story, titled “Haydee,” physically describes the main character of the story; the name of this character, the “collectionneuse” of the title, is that of the actress Haydee Politoff, and the description physically matches the actress.

Or again: in “Claire’s Knee,” Jerome explains to Madame W. and Laura that “he and Aurora first met, six years before, when he was the cultural attaché in Bucharest” (p. 173). Why Bucharest? Presumably because Aurora Cornu, who plays a writer in the film, is a Romanian writer. There’s a further overlay here: Aurora (the character) is a writer and claims that she wants to write use Jerome as a character in her book. It’s not by chance that Aurora and Jerome look at a painting of Don Quixote: as Vargas Llosa noted, in the first book, Quixote makes the mistake of trying to read the world through the lens of a book, while in the second, the world, having read the book about Quixote, keeps expecting him to act like a character in it. Rohmer’s introduction again: “My heroes, somewhat like Don Quixote, think of themselves as characters in a novel, but perhaps there isn’t any novel.”

All of these stories tell the story of a male lead who passes through a point of crisis; all of the narrators attempt to justify their generally reprehensible behavior to themselves with flimsy reasoning, the morality of which is belied by the damage they end up doing to others. The most interesting use of this is in the fifth story, “Claire’s Knee,” where Jerome justifies his desire to be unfaithful by explaining to his novelist friend Aurora (who may be a past lover) that he’s acting in the interest of providing her with a story. There’s a distinct echo here of Choderlos de Laclos: and while Aurora, who is at least partially a stand-in for the director, finds his storytelling useful, she’s aware that his stated reasons aren’t his real ones. As in Les Liaisons dangereuses, the relationship between these two characters is more interesting than what they’re plotting; Jerome, however, isn’t aware enough to notice Aurora’s interest in him, or to notice that she, who he has taken as single, has her own distant fiance. The libertine echoes return in “Love in the Afternoon”: early on, the narrator describes his escape by reading in the subway:

On the train, I much prefer reading books to newspapers, not only because newspapers are cumbersome but also because I can’t immerse myself in the papers. Books lead me further afield, and at present I’m very much taken with books on exploration. Today’s book is entitled Voyage autour du Monde by Bougainville. (pp. 217–8.)

Bougainville’s description of Tahiti as paradise, source of the idea of the “noble savage” almost certainly isn’t what the narrator is reading: more likely he’s reading Diderot’s response, Supplément au voyage de Bougainville which sees in the sexual freedom of the Tahitians a model for the libertine reinvention of Western society. (In the film, it’s clear that the narrator’s edition includes Diderot’s supplement.) This also presages Chloe’s later argument against marriage, which the narrator finds tempting, but rejects, that polygamy isn’t degrading to women if women also practice it. For the narrator, it’s an escape from his present bourgeois reality; but it’s not one that he will follow up on.

These stories can’t be separated from the films, and were presumably meant to be read in conjunction with them, although this would have been very difficult for most readers in the 1970s when the films wouldn’t have been immediately accessible as they are now. The films were made from 1962 to 1972; they blossom from black and white shorts about students to full-color feature films about first affianced and finally married couples. While the characters don’t recur – save for a dream sequence in Love in the Afternoon, not reflected in the story – there’s an implicit story of growth, of a director growing more confident with himself. This growing maturity isn’t reflected as much in the stories: while the stories are more complex, Rohmer isn’t interested as much in the different ways that narrative voice can function in fiction. Most of these stories are told in the first person, echoed strongly by the voiceovers of the first films. “La Collectionneuse” starts in the third person from several perspectives (the film’s “prologues”) before it switches to the first. Only “Claire’s Knee” differs, being told in a the third person; this is generally from the perspective of Jerome, but at the end it suddenly switches over to Aurora with a scene that could only be seen by her: “The boy’s left arm is around Claire’s shoulder, and his right hand is caressing her knee.” (p. 213) This isn’t quite reflected in the film: there, the actors sit on a bench with their backs to the camera. The boy may be caressing her knee with his left hand (which would have mattered more to Jerome than to Aurora), but the viewer can’t see this; had the viewer not read the text, they almost certainly would not have presumed this. These are stories that are better told as films, where the camera’s perspective can be unhinged from the task of straightforward narration.